Father God, please meet Mother Nature

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Each time I read the word Mother Nature, it makes me pause. I find it bothersome that we personify nature as female, only so we can exploit and abuse it unceremoniously.

We continue to worship Father God but wring out life from the manifestation, Mother Nature: We respect in concept and violate in reality, how can that not be bothersome? 

We divide an otherwise unified force into male and female, into thought and action, into belief and disregard, in the way that we divide ourselves into mind and body. A false dichotomy, because when the body needs water, the mind feels the thirst. When the mind feels joyful, the body is light, and there’s a bounce in our step.

A little retuning may teach us a valuable lesson: ‘Don’t trust that which inclines the mind towards dichotomy.’ Black and white are not contrasting colours, they are shades on the grayscale, and earth and sky both have electromagnetic activity. Why then accept Father God and Mother Nature?

In the semi-rural setting of Goa, India, I begin to pay attention to ease, and where it can be experienced in our surroundings. I walk on a floor made of cow-dung and my calf muscles sigh in relief. I sit in the cool shade of a tree canopy in sweltering heat and my heart sings. I read words written on stone with chalk: ‘May our connections grow more loving’ (translated from Bangla, one of the 19,500 mother tongues or dialects spoken in India) and my mind awakens to the purity of thought.

Image courtesy: natureWORKS, Pilerne, Goa (India)

I water plants on a mud path covered with dry leaves and my steps feel light. I eat a papaya ripened on a tree that is growing in soil fed by dry leaves and manure from decomposed human and food waste. Half a papaya makes my body feel nourished and sated and I notice that I feel no hunger or thirst as night sets in and I slip into slumber. I meditate in a veranda surrounded by trees and observe as the mosquitoes buzz in my ears and chew at my flesh. I realise then that the sensation is not as troublesome as the reaction, only to resume reacting till I can relax and return patiently to the ease of realisation. 

Ease, I discover, is the plane on which Father God meets Mother Nature. It’s where all that is created unites with all that is being created. The creator is the process of creation—Father God is Mother Nature! 

Welcome, Maad (coconut tree in Konkani, the local language of Goa).
Pedestal up, like in a movie shot, and what do I see on the plane of ease? Gyrating fronds or leaves of a coconut tree.

  1. The coconut tree when in bloom gives us Neera, a refreshing and sweet drink extracted from the flower clusters of mature trees. 
  2. The gyrating fronds weave unresistingly into thread-less mats to sleep on, and they make an airy, privacy fence that doesn’t block the breeze. 
  3. The leaves or fronds shade mud roofs and prevent them from cracking in the heat of the tropical sun. 
  4. The tree’s fruit pulp is a delicious and revitalising appetite filler.  
  5. From the pulp comes coconut cream and milk that is used in many cuisines and desserts. 
  6. The water in the fruit is a blessing on a hot day. 
  7. Fibre from the outer husk of the coconut can fill our mattresses and be used as a loofah for dishes or to exfoliate the skin on our feet. 
  8. Coconut fibre is also good to layer soil. It improves drainage and it retains moisture. 
  9. The shells of the coconut make an appealing boundary for plants and prevent precious, well-composted soil from being washed away.
  10. Coconut shells make earthy-looking soap dishes and are handy bowls for our easily acquired, all natural, zero cost, and zero waste, coconut-fibre loofah. 
  11. The roots of the tree are medicinal. 
  12. The bark (of a tree that has completed its lifespan) can be used to build our shelters and to make furniture.   

All this and more from a tree that needs negligible care. 

Pedestal down and there you are, and I am, resting blissfully in the shade of the tree: Father God, please meet Mother Nature.

A little about natureWORKS from the family that lives on the land and is sharing the experience with me:
‘natureWORKS is a sustainable homestead we are creating with mud and alternate architecture, amidst a food forest. We use only recycled and upcycled doors, windows, timber, roof and floor tiles. Also, other second-hand materials, like glass, steel, and aluminium, that would otherwise end up in junkyards or landfills. We aim to keep our carbon footprint as tiny as possible. Most living will be out doors, under the trees with only cooking and sleeping at night done indoors, especially during the rains. Our lifestyle is simple, basic, frugal, and fairly radical. The homestead, for us, our 95 year old mum and our two children, is purely for family use. It’s not really a “Dream Home,” as something to be selfishly attached to, or be house proud of, or show off about. But it definitely is part of a blueprint and roadmap for sustainable living on our planet.’

As intended

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony / Getting Started

On January 1, 2022, I returned to Mumbai from Goa (coastal state in India known for its fertile soil, beautiful beaches, and susegad or untroubled lifestyle that has been changing rapidly with urbanisation and an influx of urbanites into the state). 

In my car was a cake box that had been converted into a tray for three spinach saplings and two herbs—Brahmi (Waterhyssop) and Chirata (Swertia). Alongside sat three recycled plastic bottles, one holding a sapling of Ritha/Reetha or Indian soapberry (Sapindus mukorossi), and the other two carrying a young Kadipatta or Curry tree and a passion fruit plant. 

Seeds and cuttings of other beautiful plants, including the favoured butterfly pea with its deep blue (almost purple) flower that colours our tisane and soothes our nerves also made the journey. I had ordered tisane and enjoyed spinach like any good consumer of nourishment, but now my process of maturation had begun. I was soon to become a beneficiary of nature’s benevolence and a participant in its joy. 

Every morning, I watched as the butterfly pea and other seeds and saplings continued to grow and thrive, while I contributed by caring for their needs. Sunlight, water, fresh air, and healthy soil are amply present in natural surroundings that haven’t been interfered with, however in an apartment they must be provided for, making my care a mere circumstantial necessity. 

I observed that the seeds integrated the nutrients made available to them to become the plants that they were meant to become, and the plants were integrating nutrients, from the atmosphere and the soil, to become nourishment for us: as nature intended.

The butterfly pea sprouted and grew from seed to sapling. It swayed gently in the air and the head of its upper stem turned towards the sun at intervals, like a rotating device atop a lookout tower. One evening, I intuitively grounded a stick in the pot for the slender stem to lean on. The next morning, I found the plant gracefully wrapped around the stick. This plant’s nature is to wrap itself around a more solid structure, from which its fragility gains strength, as soon as the wooden stick was offered it did as nature intended for it to do.

I continued to share my observations with friends and benefactors who had gifted me the seeds and saplings in Goa, and they continued to share what they witnessed of natural cycles in their food forest.

M from the M&M duo shared a beautiful photograph of a mature Ritha/Reetha (Indian soapberry) tree that had shed its leaves to mulch the soil and protect it from being scorched by the summer sun in India. M mentioned that the shedding of leaves followed the fruit-bearing period. 

The fruits were drying in the sun, the leaves were protecting the soil, and the tree trunk and branches were preparing to sprout and unfurl new leaves: What had been integrated, had disintegrated to become.

The leaves were becoming nourishment for the soil and its creatures, the fruits were becoming medicine for our wellbeing and a resource for personal hygiene, cleaning, and other household requirements, and the soil was becoming a food source for many plants and trees that sustained life. The tree was disintegrating to integrate and was “becoming to become”: as nature intended.

And we, what are we becoming to become? If at the heart of nature’s cycle is regeneration, then are our tasks all distractions? Those working to empower the subjugated amongst us are likely to think otherwise, because lack of equity is the cause of many problems in human society. However, without the firmament of regeneration, we might merely be helping people to become part of an exploitative system. 

As I write, I hear the raucous call of those working on road repairs outside our apartment building. In the heat of 38°C (100.4°F), they exert energy to pull and tug at underground wires and call out loud the command of the leader at the head of a long human chain.

Had they been educated, within the system, they would design and build the machines that ploughed the earth, excavated the soil, and tugged at the wires. They wouldn’t labour with their hands and bodies, they would labour with their brains and mind. Labour they would still remain!

They would not become skilled craftsmen, or talented workers, nor would they become empowered creators who experience and live the joy of participating in a regenerative system: as nature intended. 

With this understanding, I explored the feeling of empowerment within me. When is it that I felt most empowered? Therein I sensed lay the answer to the essence of empowerment. Choice, free thought, free speech, financial provision, all of which I have had access to since birth, somehow reminded me of weak clay pots that collapse when exposed to heat—These ideas of empowerment, I realised were incapable of containing its essence. 

My exploration brought me closer to the feelings that empowerment evoked or the feelings that evoked empowerment. Joy, wellbeing, harmony, and trust contained my experience of empowerment, they were its essence. How then are we to empower? Where lie these attributes of human experience? Perhaps in a regenerative system, as a solution towards equity for all living beings, where that which integrates disintegrates, and that which disintegrates becomes: as nature intended.

A whiff of intention

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

Moments of intention. Image courtesy: Neha Mundhra and Madhushree Daga

What began as a loosely planned journey of best intentions to keep my carbon emissions low as I travel far from the city towards greener surroundings has become an unexpected lesson in understanding what it means to live by our intentions.

Intentions don’t hold the reigns the way willpower does. They are not an exerted force that keeps us on track, they are akin to the fragrance that guides us on the path. (Track for me is like a course cleared for an athlete, and a path is land that has been tread upon by generations but the landscape is still intact: flowers, bushes, trees, and stones are as they were, no longer wild but not manicured or tidied up).

Living by intention, a life that is more respectful of natural balance is not quite that simple, because it’s not about aligning ourselves with some larger, more perfect phenomenon. It’s about what we put out there so that natural balance is maintained within and around.

We don’t just decide to live a zero waste life and stick to it without compromises, making life difficult for ourselves and those we live with. Instead we have the intention, and each time we buy or ask for something, we live that intention with complete cognisance. There is no compromise. There is a choice at each step and there is knowing and recognition that the choice could have been better or different in different circumstances—the minute we get this, we start to choose to put ourselves in circumstances that are more conducive to developing our intentions and we accept the circumstances that we cannot change.

During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, I did all that I could to reduce our packaging waste—my mother and I began to make bio enzymes with citrus fruit peels, water, and jaggery, it’s a great all-purpose cleaner for the house; we proactively managed delivery of fresh produce to the residents of our apartment building, setting up a system where residents inked their apartment numbers on grocery bags and kept them downstairs on delivery day, we coordinated for all deliveries to come one day a week to reduce the back and forth for the vendor and to cut down the use of fuel, and we requested that he carry all produce in crates separated by apartment numbers (not in plastic bags that the delivery boys disposed unthinkingly after our delivery). The orders were of significant quantity and he was understanding enough to make the effort. 

We made many small adjustments, including baking biscuits and roasting snacks at home, so that we could eliminate unnecessary wrappers and boxes from our recyclable waste that most often gets sent to landfills, because the entire chain still needs to be developed to match our copious consumption of packaging. I also chose to make my own fresh almond and coconut milk for the same reason. We bulk ordered natural laundry and dishwashing soaps that came without individual packaging; the list of small tweaks was long, each a choice that we made despite being used to the conveniences that city life and financial flexibility provide, and then (in April 2021) we got Covid. 

Both my parents and I were unwell at the same time, and extended family galvanised to send us food so that we got the necessary nutrition. Everything had to come in disposable boxes and bags, nobody had spare stock of reusable boxes to send our meals for three weeks. We had to accept fruits and vegetables in plastic bags because giving our cloth bags was no longer an option. We didn’t have the energy to bake and make, and we needed the right food to help aid recovery. We ordered it all! Sure we chose homegrown brands that made and packaged consciously, but everything we needed was being shipped and delivered to us in more packaging than place in the house to store.  

The effort that we put through 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and the changes that I had gradually introduced over a decade made me see how adjusting to the situation was a non-negotiable that strengthened intentions and did not in fact bring them to a compromise.

These strengthened intentions were the reason I calculated carefully my carbon emissions while planning a four-month learning expedition in India that began in November 2021. As a woman travelling alone, I made safety an important criteria and chose a combination of road, flight, and train transport; second best to a journey by train throughout. 

However, the travel hasn’t gone as planned, and therefore I call this a loosely planned journey of best intentions.  

I took to the road and went from Mumbai, a city of about 21 million people to Hatkanangale, a rural town of about 15,047 people at a distance of ~375-kilometers or 233-miles. After serving at a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in a remote location in this rustic town, I was supposed to participate in the following ten-day course as a meditator, only to discover that the three-day gap between the two courses did not offer me the needed rest after a rigorous volunteer service.

My heart felt sated by the experience of untarnished moments of purity, where the mind was at complete ease with no blame, covetousness, or ambition, and each action was born of understanding, love, and gratitude, but my body felt exhausted. I took the cue and opted out, adapting to the situation that had arisen. 

The next leg of my journey was supposed to be covered by plane. I had planned to go to Navadarshanam, a community-managed forest preservation and sustenance farming land, but instead I decided to drive a distance of about 250-kilometres (~155-miles) to the coastal state of Goa, where I had lived for three and a half years. The place I call, ‘home in my heart’, and the penultimate destination on my way back to Mumbai, after volunteering at Navadarshanam and exploring by train the coffee-belt in the mountainous region of Chikmagalur in South India.

Goa unexpectedly shifted up in the travel itinerary. And here I am writing this blog post, unsure of how my plans will evolve. In a world where we look for certainty, I am learning how to mature my intentions without the force of will to bend circumstances. You know what it feels like? A slinky that a child’s tiny hands are trying to keep in perfect equilibrium by making the palms still and nerves calm, except that the trick to balance the springy motion of life is not in the palm of our hands, its in what we put out there to maintain natural balance within and around. 

Whiff on intention

It won’t stay still. “It’s slinky!” Image courtesy: Getty Images

In the unhurried pace of rural life, I listen to the silence of the Honey Forests and I watch how uncertainty pushes us into action. Goa is part of India’s vast Western Ghats, a mountain range of 160,000 square kilometres (~62,000 square miles), where giant bees, known as mavā mūs in Konkani, the language of the region, gather honeydew from trees to make honey that is more flavourful than honey from the nectar of flowers, conferring on the Western Ghats the title of Honey Forests.

We rush, we pursue, and we conjure and imagine, because living with uncertainty is hard. It’s hard till we accept our vulnerability, develop our patience with wisdom, and put forth our determination with love—All in its own time, trusting that the whiff of intentions will lead us to honey that is sweeter. So far, I have not managed to cut carbon emissions from my travel as much as I wished to, but I walk more, buy carefully, turn down the water flow when I do my chores, keep the stove flame lower than the perimeter of the pan, compost regularly, cook at home, use till things are unusable, mend what I can, keep lights turned off when not needed, and am doing all that I can to live by my intentions.

“I did it for love.”

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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Second best is fine
Diwali, festival of ‘inner’ light. Image courtesy: Enchanting travels, in Varanasi, India

I looked out the window and my heart fluttered. The sun had set, leaving behind the usual brightness of city lights that seemed soft and shadowy in the presence of seemingly endless strings of green and orange fairy lights, that lay like a blanket over the bushes in the garden and snaked around the trunk of a lone standing tree and the stems of two graceful palms. 

A rather literal representation of Diwali, the festival of light(s), I thought. The version of the Diwali story that my sister and I heard repeatedly as children was narrated by our grandmother, and what I recall is the return of the noble couple, Rama and Sita, who preserved virtue and reigned over greed and avarice despite indescribable hardship. 

To welcome virtue and the noble couple into our home, our grandmother lit twenty-one small earthen diyas (cups) with ghee (clarified butter) and a cotton wick, as do most households even today, then why the need for twinkling strands of electricity?

This year loud noise and smoke from fireworks and the ocular disturbance of electric lights coincides with the cry of the scientific community and of youth activists to cut emissions and to change radically our ways of production and consumption as the planet heats up.

My eyes looked at the fairy lights and they read the notifications that appeared on my phone about commitments being made at COP26 (Conference of the Parties, a UN conference on climate change)—simultaneous realities that highlighted the co-existence of darkness and light. It occurred to me that the noble and ignoble simply share space.

Is it not possible however, that there can be a little more light and a lot less darkness, of the kind that Diwali symbolises without the electric spectacle?

Each year, as festivities begin, I rant about what we are doing to the planet and oftentimes I send a strongly-worded message to the Managing Committee at our apartment building. This year, I chose differently. I inclined towards an inclusive stand: a little more (light of wisdom) and a lot less (darkness of ignorance), please!

I requested Management to turn off the fairy lights at midnight, when almost all residents are asleep. They agreed, only to turn the lights back on at 5AM before dawn, when people start stepping down for their morning exercise. Not perfect, but at least a five-hour respite had been made available to those having to bear the worst brunt of this light show. A sight we easily escape by drawing the curtains or pulling down the blinds. 

Did I just compromise my idealism or did I learn for the first time to apply it correctly? Is idealism not about fighting all odds to get to the perfect outcome? Is it not about striving for perfection? I didn’t know this at the time, but the recent negotiation was the outcome of a new perspective: Idealism is about continuing to care despite all odds, allowing what we care about to alter our life. No longer the ranting reformist, I was transforming into a tolerant “inclusivist”, grateful for every experience of peaceful accord. 

This was the second in a series of realisations and negotiations that happened over two weeks. The first was on a Saturday morning, when I sprinted to catch a bus. After twenty-five years of resisting the growing crowds in my city, I found that I was unable to get into the car and power my way to my favourite cafe at a distance of 13-kilometres or 8-miles. And so I ran, like Lola.  

In the 1998 experimental thriller, Lola had twenty-minutes to save her boyfriend, I had less than a minute to run to the bus stop to catch the bus, which was at a red light about 300-metres from the stop. 

Just in time, I climbed onboard, and was told that the bus was going to a bus depot a little farther from where I boarded. I disembarked at the next stop and learned that only one bus halted there. Who knew how long before a relatively empty bus would show up? With hungry friends waiting for breakfast and to relish a reunion after eight months, passivity was not an option. I walked at a brisk pace, unconcerned by sweat and crowds, focused on making it quickly to the next stop. As I walked the distance of a kilometre or 0.62-miles, I watched three buses to my destination speed by.

Finally, I reached the desired bus stop and waited patiently for the bus; ten-minutes later it arrived. I climbed the three steps, thinking it’s time these buses got ramps: realities change and realities are varied, to design for a single reality is flawed. 

I walked to the front thankful that unlike the buses I had missed, this one had vacant seats. Sitting by the window, I felt the air circulate and all trace of mugginess was erased from my skin and memory. I looked out at signboards of institutional stores in narrow lanes of old Bombay: gems of typography and style, hidden by huge facades of modernity, made distance and time irrelevant.

My friends weren’t at the cafe yet. They had delayed their arrival in anticipation of my bus adventure. I was far from bothered as I got a table and ordered an almond-milk cappuccino. On the contrary, I was buoyant and filled with joy. I had negotiated my way out of an old habit or mental block. In a city of approximately 21-million, I had braved the bus because I loved nature and the life of all beings a little more than my comfort. I felt free and liberated. I learned that the joy of choosing from love is much greater than the righteousness of principles and is beyond the reach of conveniences offered by the modern economic system. My friends were amused, ‘Do you realise that most people who rode with you, do it every day?’ ‘Sure, but I did it for love,’ was my reply.

The third such incident in this series involved a road trip. After two-long Covid wave-and-lockdown years, I was making plans to give service at and to sit a Vipassana meditation retreat. From there I intended to drive to Navadarshanam, a forest preservation and sustenance farming space, with a halt at a coffee plantation to learn about the harvest-to-roast process that converts a beautiful berry into a brown bean and completes the morning ritual of many around the world. 

I enjoy road trips, especially because India dotted by villages and adorned by small verdant fields, waterfalls and streams, sun-dried montane grass, and perennial wild green forests offers stretches of un-manicured beauty as relief from shabby, unplanned development. 

I assumed simply that a road trip to my various destinations would be less polluting than taking flights, till I checked a carbon footprint calculator: a return flight and the journey by road released an equal amount of Carbon Dioxide, 0.16 metric tons. Not marginally less but equal! Detours while driving and taxi rides between airports and final destinations maintain this fine balance.  

The least polluting option is also my least favourite. Overnight train rides across 1200-kilometres or 745.65-miles bring emissions down to 0.01 metric tons, but they also sound in my head the horn of caution. Unpleasant experiences from past journeys make me apprehensive about choosing this option while travelling alone. I may therefore compromise and fly one-way while taking shorter train journeys on the way back. A decision as imperfect as the five-hour respite from the Diwali light show, and a choice that fills me with the same buoyancy as the bus ride after twenty-five years, is a reminder that love is larger than principles and greater than perfection. And all that love needs is idealism of the inclusive kind. 

Choice, a silver lining

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

Choice, a silver lining

My maternal grandmother came from aristocracy and she married into a family similar in stature, yet, there came a point in her life where cupboards filled with gold and silver cutlery were replaced by four annas.

An anna was a currency unit formerly used in British India and afterwards in sovereign India upto the 1960s. Four annas is equivalent to 25 paise—that’s not even a cent! It’s actually 50 paise short of a cent (one cent is ~75 paise at current exchange rates). Yet, not once did her five daughters hear her complain. 

She had the choice to go back to her maternal home, lament over or denounce her husband’s ill-founded habits of speculative trade that had brought them misfortune, but she chose not to utter words that demeaned her dignity: For her, dignity came from acceptance and trust, trust in the laws of the universe. 

In that moment of choice, she decided not to be fortune’s dice. She could have, and the world would have sympathised, because for one who had so much, the pain of loss is felt vicariously by all, while for others it may be ignored, because ‘we are born into our fate’, a phrase that justifies our preoccupation and our systemic flaws. 

Her choice to retain her dignity through acceptance and trust meant that she continuously had to rise to the highest potential in humans. And each time she did, life provided support. Four annas were substituted, without asking, by a sum of money that would last for a while.This was a present for Rakhi, the festival where sisters and brothers recognise the purity of the relationship, expressed by a vermillion mark on the forehead and a string tied on the wrist, both symbols of the blessings and protection that relationships of purity bring. 

When she was an octogenarian (in her 80s), her spine deteriorated and she lost the ability to walk and gradually even to turn in bed. She had the choice to be bothered by this physical discomfort that lasted for about three years, but she chose instead to keep her equanimity, and when she breathed her last in her 91st year, she did so with a gentle mind. A final exhalation after her evening nourishment told us she had moved on silently, with the same dignity with which she lived.  

My grandmother’s life taught me that choices are available to everyone, those who lose their endowment, but gain privilege through strength in character, and those who have neither endowment nor privilege because they simply need to develop their character to make advantageous choices. 

Advantageous is that in which the mind is at ease with its own truth, where it doesn’t need to use its will to straighten fortune’s twists and curls. Choice begins with a simple question, about the kind of person we wish to be in that moment.

Recently, Shalaka Sisodia, friend and founder of Seeds of Awareness (SOA), a non-profit that addresses the delicate topic of choice and agency with children who come from challenging backgrounds shared a promo video. Ajay Devgn (one of the finer movie stars in Bollywood, India) was introducing the possibility of choice in a run-up to SOA’s recent release of short films that show the journey of two children, and make us pause and reflect on the moment when they made a choice. The choices naturally lead to a series of consequences that mould their life, however, what stood out for me was that regardless of the mould they created, the choice to remould was still theirs to make.

Life’s incredible benevolence became evident to me through these films—there is always a second chance! However, it’s not all upbeat, because a second chance is often hard to take, it requires tremendous courage, and more importantly it requires support. This takes the personal journey of choice-making from the individual to society. 

I think for the most part people are happy to help, however, in situations that may save someone from personal ruin, hesitancy seems to be a more common response. And asking for help is hard when you’re caught in a whirlwind of broken dreams, domestic and emotional violence, and destructive behaviour. 

This makes Seeds of Awareness’s commitment to help and support that much more worthy of admiration. Shalaka comes from much endowment and privilege, and yet she has put herself and her organisation in a place where many would dare not go, mostly because tough realities lay there; and it takes generosity and strength of character to stand up to them. Her team and her group of facilitators share equally in this acknowledgement.   

These short films (Hindi with English subtitles) can begin important conversations with children that we might find difficult to have otherwise. It may be best to remember that a conversation of this nature is not about pushing our own bias. It is a way to understand the child’s reality and to empower the child, as well as support them so that they can make advantageous choices with the least amount of friction. 

If you’re an educator, a parent, or someone who interacts closely with children, and are interested in facilitating such conversations, reach out to the team at Seeds of Awareness and understand the best way to direct these conversations. The situations and the backgrounds of the children in these short films may differ from the ones that your children encounter, but is that really pertinent?

Sireesha Dasaka, ex-banker and a full-time mother of two children (boys of twelve and eight-years), trained as a facilitator with Seeds of Awareness, and was privy to a dialogue at an International School. She witnessed 6th and 7th-grade children vocalise empathy for and sensitivity towards the children in the film, despite not having exposure to the particularities of their situations and background. 

Their moral radars were quick at catching the injustice of repression, stereotyping, unhealthy body image, and gender disparity. ’It seems,’ says Sireesha, ‘From what I observed of these children, empathy comes naturally to us humans.’ And all that needs to keep that circle of empathy from disintegrating is a conversation, a pause, and a moment of reflection that helps us make advantageous choices.   

Half (of) the whole

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Are you in or are you out? We are clearly dividing the world into fractions, and are no longer a whole, or perhaps we simply never were.

Last week, I watched a soliloquy performed on Zoom (a video communications platform) by an Indian female actor, who played the role of a mother finding out about her son’s queerness as he comes out of the closet by giving her access to his diary. An emotional play that had two possible endings, or rather two possible conclusions that the playwright put forth for the actor to choose while enlightening us, the audience, about both conclusions.

The first, a tragic conclusion that closed with the suicide of the boy—where taking his own life was easier than facing a “questionable” identity. The second, a conclusion the playwright and actor opted for by overtly dismissing the first as an unacceptable closure, was optimistic, inclusive, and held within it the joy of belonging (both for the person that is accepted and the person that accepts). In this option the mother decides not to conflict with her “non-heterosexual” son’s identity, and to partake in his world to develop understanding and complete acceptance. 

While the discussion following the performance largely focused on the need to speak up and take a stand and emphasised sexuality with such fervour that it seemed like gender identity and sexuality were somehow synonymous (a misdirection that many conversations take), the play left me with two thoughts to reflect on. One, partaking is a conscious choice and it does not influence our other choices—if you’re heterosexual, stay that way because you’re comfortable with it, but don’t resist the friendship and joy of including a non-heterosexual person in your life, and vice versa. And two, keep sexual preferences aside as a matter that is personal and therefore must be respected as private. Sexuality is bio-chemical, gender is conceptual, a construct of language and culture.

Therefore, I am deliberately using the term non-heterosexual; it’s a mouthful but at least its not reductive in a way that erases the nuances of a person’s personality to place them within the LGBTQ+ construct. A non-heterosexual and a heterosexual person are the antithesis of each other merely in sexual preference—the flip side of the same coin—the material the coin is made of remains the same, like our common humanity. 

The play in discussion, Ek Madhav Baug is an honest attempt at inspiring empathy, produced by Humsafar Trust, a health and human rights organisation for the LGBTQ+ community in India. Non-heterosexual people are labeled and neatly placed on the fringes of society as a minority, alongside people of colour (other than the colour white); women; citizens of the less industrialised (commonly known as less developed) world; indigenous people or people living in tribes; people who do not contribute to economic growth, broadly defined as the poor and illiterate; people whose lives are more dispensable, such as lower middle-income earners. We are all minorities because our subjective realities—and at times our existence—is not respected. Lack of sufficient representation is merely a symptom of the malady, the malady of disrespect and prejudice. 

Since many of us fall into the minority classification, let’s think numbers for two minutes:

Of course there are overlaps in these categories, but we can perhaps without much statistical complexity take the median number of 3.6 billion people who quite certainly qualify as a minority—a little less than half the world population! However, only together as a collective do we form this incredible half, separately in our own little fractions we are an insignificant minority to be noticed or taken seriously when we contribute to the current rhetoric: I recall that in the 1990s and early 2000s a business was considered progressive when it showed equal or near-equal participation of women in the workforce, and North American universities spoke of diversity by including students from Asia and Africa. 

Why were non-heterosexual people not part of this “image of progressiveness” back then? Possible that there were not as many non-heterosexual people demanding representation and therefore were excluded from the adopted hyperbole. Today as the United States of America and Europe espouse LGBTQ+ rights, the community has gained a place in the common rhetoric and in platitudes on diversity, only to have their reality diminished by the label, so much so that many try to fit the stereotype: I remember a gay friend dismissing the stereotype back in 2010 with a remark that he too was a man. This was his reality, and there were characteristics of a man that he identified with, as much as I have seen him identify with the characteristics of a woman at other times. Similar to what most of us in the heterosexual lot feel, whether male or female.

Could it be that we all identify with either/or characteristics at different times? Likely, if we assign these characteristics by biology in the first place. For me personally, characteristics are the same across humanity: aggression, compassion, kindness, selfishness etc.; only physicality differs. In my previous posts I have taken the stand that information on birth-sex or sexual reassignment (such as in the case of a transexual person) must be collated for medical purposes, while gender because it is conceptual may need to be restricted to gatherings of the likeminded: not all concepts are fathomed by all people and are often interpreted based on our understanding and life experiences. Respecting these boundaries and limitations is important.

Let me illustrate this with an example, a girl who is part of the team at Oscar Foundation, a non-profit that trains youth leaders through sports was encouraged to hold her own at her community in Mumbai, India. She learned about domestic violence and equal rights, and when she witnessed a woman being beaten by her husband, she called the police. She had gained strength and courage, and she did the right thing to support a neighbour in distress, except that when the police came to the destination they carelessly revealed to the neighbour the source of the complaint; the police left; the husband directed his anger from the wife onto the girl; the wife continued with life as normal; but this adolescent girl had to run away from home, because her father a conservative patriarch came to hear of the incident from the irate neighbour and decided that he was going to give his daughter a thrashing. She was lucky (not many are) to have relatives who took her in and intervened on her behalf. The father calmed down after a few days but the girl is not allowed to play sports or go for her training, and has cowered. If we wish to change things in society, we need to create understanding through dialogue, and respectfully win support. By activating the minds of the oppressed without engaging those around them seems like a naive act that needs to deliberate on reality and the tools for social transformation – Oscar Foundation has already made this a part of their community and integration effort.  

If labels and gender were useful at ending prejudice or a negative bias then the LGBTQ+ label should have helped increase inclusivity? All it seems to have done is created a more clear divide as reflected by hate crimes that are third to race and religion, and that grew from 2.2 to 2.7% in the US between 2018 and 2019.

No different from the equality rhetoric that has done little to end, let alone reduce violence against women: Globally, an estimated 736 million women—almost one in three—have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older). This is probably true for most of the seventeen UN Development Goals,

I am not certain the world will ever have perfect inclusivity, historically there seems to be no evidence of this; maybe human nature does not lend itself to the possibility? Humans tolerate what is popularly accepted, with political and religious institutions taking the lead in shaping acceptance and culture. In India, transgender is considered the third gender by law, yet they are largely unacknowledged as a part of mainstream society; they are feared and abhorred, shunned and tolerated, merely because they are present in our mythological stories and in history, recognised by gods and kings.  

As a liberal thinker, I flinch at my intolerance of conservative views, because to me that is a farce of inclusivity.  

As a heterosexual person, I feel comfortable enough in a majority to extend respect to those who may not have the same comfort of belonging.

As a woman, I know what discrimination feels like and I write with the hope that we can cohabit if not espouse.

As a female of the species, I know I am a design of nature as much as the male, and I hope that our shared origin enables us to live without oppression of the other.

Some humans will make the choice to reflect on their biases; some will not. Some will choose to be inclusive and to cohabit; some will not. Offensive or antagonistic positions are not going to win support or create lasting transformation in society, we need to engage and dialogue, and we need to let things be. We who are half (of) the whole are reduced to a minority when fragmented, we need to stop feeding the rhetoric, and we need to stop creating the rhetoric. 

All people, minority or otherwise need a framework of support and solidarity within their immediate surrounding. The rest may or may not choose to be inclusive. Stop an act of physical oppression with immediacy, and win support and inclusivity from the people you rely on and those who rely on you, over time with patience and empathy, after all we are who we are on the inside, the rest does not matter because it changes.

‘No problem!’

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All / Coexistence & Harmony

no problem
Simple in design, beautiful in application, and not an energy hog.
Image courtesy: Priyadarshini Ravichandran for Kyobi.blog

I come from a family with a generation of engineers. My father and his brother went to one of the best engineering colleges in India that is reputed worldwide (The Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay). Engineering was a discipline of choice for an India that was rapidly seeking industrialisation after a long and oppressive colonial rule—we considered it sensible to make up for lost time and lost opportunity by emulating our oppressors. The world was moving rapidly in a certain direction and free India, powered by its engineers, was ready to move along.

The engineers in my family, however, made a transition into business or the academics, and eventually into the arts. Their training in linear thinking offered them a certain rigour that enabled deep mining of information to be expressed through their chosen field of art. Their choices and the application of their training has given me a glimpse into both worlds—the world of the logical and the world of the intuitive. 

I am starting to learn that both mental applications (linear and non-linear or logical and intuitive) need to coalesce to create beautiful solutions that fit naturally into the intricate web of creativity so as not to break or destroy the delicate strings that run through and from species to fossils, fossils to minerals, minerals to rocks, with water beneath, around, and within.

When a child with impaired vision is given a ball with bearings that create sound to indicate movement and direction, allowing the child use of auditory senses to enjoy a game, design and engineering does not alter reality, it accepts the problem and makes it a little easier to live with. 

Visually impaired child with a sound ball.
Image courtesy: Arvind Premanand for Oscar Foundation

When a small-farmer, also a mechanical engineer, innovates to intercrop two native species of plants that sequester carbon from the air, fix nitrogen in the soil to improve soil fertility, and make for inexpensive and nutritious fodder that reduces overgrazing of already degraded land, logic and imagination co-create an improved reality to reduce the severity of a problem. 

Jose Flores Gonzalez intercropping Agave and Mesquite at his farm in Mexico.
Image courtesy: Mongabay.com

On the other hand, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in trying to solve a pressing problem may actually leave us with a bigger problem to solve: By injecting captured atmospheric carbon deep into Earth’s core, below the volcanic/basalt rock, we will lock “forever” the excessive carbon dioxide emitted by us humans, and quite likely continue to fiddle with and alter natural systems.

We extracted carbon as oil, natural gas, and petroleum, and mined it as coal, now we plan on injecting it as liquified gas. The balance that we tipped by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we aspire to fix by taking it from the atmosphere and putting it back underground—A seemingly simple solution to an obvious problem; only if it were as easy…

In October 2020, while working on an initiative to introduce a respectful consumption model in clothing and textile, I spoke with an associate professor of mechanical engineering to help create a solution to plastic packaging in the clothing retail business. ‘Clothes are not perishable products; there must be a packaging solution that is natural, biodegradable, and that serves the purpose of protecting fabric during shipment. Can you help identify or develop something that meets this criteria?’ I requested. He spoke with his colleagues and got back to me, ‘We only work with composites (80% synthetic polymers, eg. plastic, and 20% natural substances). ‘Seriously! But composites are hard to recycle, aren’t they?’ I asked confused. ‘We are engineers,’ said he in reply, ‘We look at a problem and devise a solution, that’s all.’ 

This explains how we came up with recycling as a solution to our growing collection of plastic waste, except that composites are hard to strip apart and recycle. My head was filled with images of biscuit wrappers, coffee cups, milk cartons, and bags of potato chips; all packed in a range of polypropylene, polyethylene and polyvinylidene chloride or dichloride films, mixed with metal foil or wood fibre. Composites reduce the cost of packaging, they increase the shelf life of our products, but only a small part of a composite can be recycled while most of it ends up in a landfill or in the ocean.

And a bigger problem with recycling to manage waste from composites is scale; We need to scale recycling to match the current consumption and disposal of packaging, and we need fossil fuel to run recycling machinery—Fossil fuel combined with scale is where trouble began in the first place. 

A linear mind says, ‘no problem!’ and simply breaks apart the fossil fuel and scale combo.

If we decarbonise, anthropogenic (human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions become insignificant, and scale with scarcely any emissions of the harmful sort ceases to be an issue. Perfect, industry can go on as is, consumption can continue unhindered, and economies can flourish and compete. The solution—transition to renewable and clean sources of energy—is as linear as this oversimplified view of the problem. 

Sure, decarbonising will help restore balance in the atmosphere and will help save the biosphere, but what about the changes triggered by our continuous and scaled use of clean and renewable energy? Earth’s systems apart from the atmosphere and biosphere include the geosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere (the frozen parts of the Earth’s surface), and all five are involved in a symphony, where changes to one (piece) create changes in the entire composition. 

In this reduced view of the problem, we overlook another important fact: organic matter needs time to renew, failing which it depletes and dies before its time, dispossessing all that it interconnects with. For example, clean geothermal energy concentrations from the Earth’s core depend on radioactive decay that may take thousands of years to become significant (and part of Earth’s heat may be primordial, therefore not regenerative by nature; once depleted, it cannot be restored), Larderello, Italy, site of the world’s first electrical plant supplied by geothermal energy, has seen its steam pressure fall by more than 25% since the 1950s.

Well, this is merely an obstacle in linear thinking, isn’t it?

We can always substitute geothermal energy with hydrogen from biomass, the new star in the “Environmental Walk of Fame”, however residue, resource, and cycle of exchange need to be considered to calculate impact, resource can range from plants and algae to wood, and residue maybe methane, sulphur and other elements (I admit I need to read more on clean hydrogen, however it make take a while for us to prove that it is a panacea to our copious need for energy).

So, we leave aside clean energy and focus on renewables such as solar and hydro energy from the sun and free-flowing rivers, both of which are abundant and will not be exhausted, only harnessed, except that one of the world’s largest gravity dams for hydroelectricity, the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China, has started to warp: the structure is bending out of shape with the push and pressure of “harnessed” water. And the increased risk of earthquakes and floods caused by damming and restricting huge quantities of water that is part of a free-flowing river system is becoming obvious.

Capturing and concentrating solar energy too comes with its own imprint on soil and weather cycles, especially when done at the scale we humans require. Our current economic engine is designed and engineered to ignore the truth in Small is Beautiful, the case for which is evident in imbalanced Earth systems that sustain all life. The 30×30 initiative by the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) is a fabulous recognition of this truth – ‘We cannot restore nature if we do not respect its cycles.’ Thank you Outrage and Optimism for your podcast on HAC.

“The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs – except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.” – From Small is Beautiful, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, by E.F. Schumacher.    

If the problem of climate change, exacerbated by greenhouse gases, is to be solved, we need to look not towards industrialised innovation but towards human-scale technologies; we need to use our brains and our ingenuity to work in congruence with nature and not against or despite it. 

The hazards that we will face over the coming years are inevitable; we cannot forcefully bring to a halt a phenomenon that has been put into motion without feeling the tension. Like a car out of control that skids even after you apply the emergency brake, the Earth’s systems will continue to go awry even if we finally get around to reducing our unconsidered use of resources. We will need to be prepared and adequately responsive. Our energy, attention, and income or investments when focused on the right measures, such as regenerative processes and restorative tech, will help us come out of a crisis that we have created. Innovation that does not respect the capital that nature has given us may not solve the problem: tinkering with natural cycles is pointless, it’s we who need to change our habits.  

“I was raised well”

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Okay, so we all need an emotional outlet. We need to be heard and acknowledged, and we need redemption. Skin or Deborah Anne Dyer OBE sings the song ‘Weak’ with all the fight and breath she can put into it, because it’s just wrong to be violated and it’s equally wrong to become a violator. Yes, we become violators…

The cycle of oppression and the fight against it continues. The British band Skunk Anansie and their vocalist Skin gave us the song ‘Weak’ back in 1995: millions sang it, and millions continue to sing it (last year the band performed for a quarter of a million people in Poland). 

Weak as I am, no tears for you
Weak as I am, no tears for you
Deep as I am, I’m no one’s fool
Weak as I am

In this tainted soul
In this weak young heart
Am I too much for you?

I was raised well
Yes, it is!
Image courtesy: Radfunds and No Means No Worldwide

I live in a country where 88 women are raped every day: what ever happened to the goddesses we celebrate with such devotion? That’s why when women tell me that India has a rich history of treating women with respect, I recoil, because I would rather not be sucked into the void of ignorance. It’s easy to speak of goddesses and cultural heritage when you haven’t experienced what so many women, girls, and babies are experiencing daily. And I am certain there are violated little boys, who don’t get covered by media reports.

I think we women need to recognise that we are not raising our boys—and our girls—well. Positive Masculinity is an essential part of the stand against sexual and gender violence. To turn the situation around, men need to learn to respect not just women, but to respect boundaries, and women too need to learn that it’s okay to have boundaries. This lesson begins with our response to our sons and our daughters, a large part of early childhood is with the mother and the other women in the house, we are teachers and nurtures, and we need to own this role: each one of those ~88 rapes puts the onus on us.  

I often wonder if a mother’s bias towards her son comes from social acceptance, deeply rooted in our subconscious, and if her own upbringing as a girl (missing in symmetry and marked by prejudice) makes her an insufficient example that the daughter emulates? This is a question for the new-gen. of mothers, who have the respect that all people deserve. We are the ones who need to take the most responsibility, because we are the ones with the privilege of social recognition and physical security. 

No means no worldwide has done a fantastic job of including positive masculinity and assertive voice in their program. The children they train in countries in Africa are learning to protect and to resist. When both boys and girls learn to maintain their personal boundaries in relationships and interactions, they will begin to learn how to be equals and friends in the true sense: it is an irrefutable necessity. Till such time, we will be fighting a losing battle, because laws can punish but they cannot alter the mental orientation that leads to crimes of sexual violence and abuse. 

The trouble with lust is its prevalence; it is as habitual as greed or anger (and as violent), and to keep it under control is a matter of developing the right habits or of developing an evolved consciousness; the latter is hard to attain, and the former is important to build: Preaching is insufficient, we need to be aware of the environment we are creating for the maturation of children.

About a month back, I watched a group of six children play tag. A young boy of about eleven, did something between a grab and a pat, where he reached for the bottom or buttock of a girl his age or slightly older—he called out, ‘You’re it,’ while doing the grab-pat—the girl ignored this intrusion and so did the other children, and they continued to play. My immediate instinct was to reprimand the boy, but because the children were so unconcerned, I watched carefully to see if he repeated the action. Thankfully, he did not, and they moved on to another game. 

What we need to ask really is, what made him cross the line without a moment of reflection? And another pertinent question is what made the girl ignore this transgression? I have never seen my nephew resort to such behaviour, and that’s not merely because he’s a “good kid.Tremendous intention has gone into his upbringing by both parents, and they illustrate through their own behaviour the behaviour expected of their children. My sister reads him stories about women heroes, and speaks to him about gender equality and women’s rights, and his elder sister (my niece) has been empowered to hold her own. She has been taught to respect her space, emotions, and her physicality. These children have had a liberal upbringing balanced synchronously by the desired yet often missing quality of responsibility. They treat others exactly the way they treat themselves, with care, affection, and respect: they are not extraordinary!

There is nothing easy about parenting, but sometimes observations from a non-parent can be as worthy as experience in helping us read the map. With this in mind, I, a non-parent, share a list of what might help parents navigate to some extent the space of behavioural development. 

  1. Be cognisant of your own habits, don’t push them on your children.
  2. Help them nourish healthy relationships with friends and relatives. Ask yourself what constitutes a healthy relationship.
  3. Draw your own boundaries with them. Do this with love, sensitivity, and understanding. You will realise that you don’t need to be a tyrant or get reactive, you simply need to be firm and compassionate.
  4. Communicate with patience and care. Be mindful of your words and explanations and the understanding you hope to elicit.
  5. Sensitise children to issues in present-day culture—gender, homosexuality, respect for life, climate emergency, ageing and disease. 
  6. Don’t overload them with gossip, chatter, and information. Let them learn through relationships. If you need to have frivolous talk about your neighbours and relatives do it away from their ears.
  7. Don’t wait for children to become teenagers, engage with them consciously from the very start.
  8. Be engaged: Carefully choose what children view and watch online. 
  9. Read to them and read with them, and read around them. Remember that we are inspired by good just as we are influenced by bad: pick and choose the books they read. 
  10. Don’t hand them a phone till they are well into their sixteenth year; comfortably settled into and at the mid-point of their adolescence. 
  11. Adolescence is a phase of transition and it’s a difficult switch to make, therefore care must be taken to help children adapt to it with love and good sense.

Please continue to add to this list and share it with thoughtfulness and goodwill, because raising a child has to do with developing the skill of parenting; if we really wish for this world to be a safer and happier place, we need to become the right kind of parents.

Condensation: a change in phase

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It hasn’t rained much this monsoon (the season when condensed water molecules, in densely packed clouds, change to water droplets). Parched lands of India wait with longing for this season. When the first droplets fall, all rejoice: the soil releases a fragrance, flowers shed the scorched dullness of a harsh summer, space suffocated by humidity finds room to breathe, the arboreal take shelter, the terrestrial adjust, and the amphibians get frisky.

Slowdown, stand still, watch, listen Image courtesy: Hindustan Times

This morning when I woke up, a heavy downpour had silenced all sound; a soothing quietude healed the ears and the mind. We need the rains, I thought, not merely so that our crop cycles can flourish, or our water supply can flow uninterrupted. We need the rains to remind us to slowdown, a word the English lexicon associates with decline, stagnation, slackness: the healthy move fast, the smart think fast, the efficient produce fast, and the prolific create fast. 

Fast is desirable—the fast car, the jet plane, the bullet train, the mechanised conveniences. We need to save time to get more things done, faster. The Shinkansen (bullet train) is a classic example of our need for speed: engineered to transport people quickly from remote regions of Japan to its financial and commercial capital, Tokyo.

The journey is not important, the interactions are inconsequential, what matters is how fast we get to the destination, and how much we can pack into one “living” day, leaving the psychiatrists to manage an isolated, disconnected, and sleep deprived population. To me this visual is a reminder of the poultry vans, filled with depressed (looking) chicken who have succumbed to their fate. 

How did we get here? In India, the means of livelihood changed significantly with the era of colonisation, especially under the British; their land tenure systems that were devised to earn disproportionately high revenues from farmers for the East India Company forced people to change how and where they lived. 

Today, we see the disenfranchisement of indigenous communities by corporate colonists, across the free world. Their right to choose how and how much of their habitable region can be restructured is being violated, reducing their voice in the political and economic landscape. This is (and has been) our fate too—the fate of the urbanised—and it shall continue to be if we allow our relationship with our current habitat to be destroyed. 

When we lose our connection with the land that feeds us and the natural systems that enable us to live healthy lives, we disembody the mind. A disembodied mind is like the mind of a depressed chicken in a coop: physical reality is so oppressive that it continues to live because it doesn’t have the tools to destroy life and perhaps neither does it have the instinct, unlike us humans who fuel violence and destruction with disembodiment; when the mind is separated from its physicality it can’t help but get destructive, ask an artist and they will tell you that they are most creative when in touch with “something” deep within—the unseen and often ignored subconscious that a disembodied mind cannot feel.

The conversation that we need to have with ourselves is not about what’s wrong with capitalism, but about what it means to be an organic, natural being, and what will it take to continue having the autonomy to live as one? 

We are too many of us, too many humans, and together we carry a weight and mass that reduces our agility: we can’t go back, but we can choose right now. Ours is the urban and semi-urban habitat, and the resources that we depend on to live should come from here, not from community forests and rural lands that are home to people who care for and rely on them. For this change to happen, we need to live an embodied existence: one that keeps the mind and body in relative harmony. 

A run on the treadmill is not the answer, neither is a stroll in the park. To live an embodied existence, we simply need to slowdown and consume less. Less electricity, less gadgets, less gasoline, less commodities, less packaging, less chatter, and less stimulation. At an interactive session on sustainability with school children, a ten-year old girl asked me: ‘Won’t people lose their jobs if we decide to buy less?’ A relevant question and an unavoidable outcome that can be mitigated. Consuming less (not the same as deprivation) is our only recourse, it will force businesses, governments, and our habits to change. But if we continue to consume the way we do, we won’t have the chance to change, even if we pleaded. P:S: The socio-economic impact of this outcome can be mitigated if funds are planned and organised, and fairly distributed to ensure people continue to earn a minimum basic income. All of us in a mid to high income bracket should agree and even push our employers to issue a pay cut to organise this fund, following the example of Millionaires for humanity.    

What if? Reimagining our world

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What if?
Reimagining a green world. Image courtesy: Priyadarshini Ravichandran for Kyobi.blog

From the natural grasslands of Scotland to medieval Europe and North America, grass and lawns have a long history that coincides with industrialisation. Rapid industrialisation caused the growth of cities which were not emblems of beauty. To make cities beautiful, British estate grounds were reimagined as parks, which were later adopted into backyard or lawn designs in suburban development. Chronologically, the lawn mower (1830) seems to have preceded the lawn and park (1850): the lawn mower made the lawn possible, and what was earlier a luxury became a common landscape feature.

The point of synthesising this information is to share that often times our lifestyle choices and consumption habits are created by industry. Highways were not constructed because road trips and weekend getaways were needed for our wellbeing, neither were they built keeping in mind a rural citizen’s need for access to urban infrastructure, such as hospitals. Highways and city or municipal roads, in all likelihood, were built to help transport minerals from mining sites to factories, goods from factories to markets, and people from homes to workplaces.  

We (customers and citizens) are not at the centre of this story—the story of development—industry and commerce is. Industrialised nations pride themselves to be developed countries, while the agrarian world is the underdeveloped or emerging component of this binary system. None want to be underdeveloped, therefore we are stuck in this pursuit of industrialisation. Perhaps, what needs to be revised is the definition of development or developed. An understandable, human view of a person who is developed is one who is mature emotionally and mentally, and is not a burden on those she relies on. She contributes positively, and is not self-absorbed, but is compassionate, caring, and inclusive.

If this is our perspective of developed or at least our starting point, then how did we fall for the economic definition that reduces development to industrialisation? That too industrialisation at scale, where to be efficient or successful we need to keep machines working at maximum capacity, stores need to sell all that is produced, and people need to keep buying to help stores sell inventory.

We are not merely consuming too much. We are producing too much, and therefore we are consuming too much, so please do not get tricked into taking complete responsibility for the problem, as a consumer. Be cognisant of the other positions that you occupy in this interconnected system.

Consider a small exercise of role play to test the contribution of the following stakeholders: Put yourself in the position of each stakeholder in the list, and use the suggested standpoint to see if you can turn around the situation illustrated below. Feel free to improvise and share your insights with the rest of us.

Situation: Each year, more than 100 billion garments are made (-for 7.9 billion people, of which at least a billion or more must be naked or semi-naked! 1.3 billion people live in multidimensional poverty – U.N Development Program

Stakeholders with suggested standpoint.

1. Governments need to revise their view of development to include ecology and welfare.
2. Economists need to view their subject not as scientific but as conceptual/theoretical
3. Investors need to stop weighing all decisions against profit and include equity (none excluded) in their calculation
4. Engineers and designers need to consider lifespan, use, and reuse of resources
5. Producers need to limit size and capacity
6. Marketers and retailers need to reimagine their roles as providers of service (to society)

If we don’t produce to reuse, then we are the problem. Electric cars are needed to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, but to make them we need to mine copper, cobalt, and other material, and when the lithium-ion battery, a component of an electric car and our mobile phone, reaches the end of its life, our capacity and ability to recycle it displays its insufficiency (According to Greenpeace, more than 12m tons of lithium-ion batteries are expected to retire between now and 2030. What then?).

Roads are built, motorbikes are sold, cars are aspired for, gasoline is needed, greenhouse gases are emitted, waste is created, solutions are needed, investments are made, manufacturing is ramped up, perishable resources are extracted, more greenhouse gases are emitted—wow, that’s a circular economy! 

I don’t mean to sound like a postmodern thinker, but really do we need solutions to an endless problem of production and consumption, or do we need a new way of thinking, living, and making? 

Money is being invested in recycling innovation but it requires time, and time is what we no longer have: This is the deciding decade for climate change, we need to halve our emissions now, because the ones to be ravaged by its effects include millions of species threatened with extinction and a few billion of us. 

The super-rich can build bunkers in New Zealand that are called survival shelters but for most of us the solution lies in choosing what and how much we consume, and thereby stepping out of the unsustainable, industrial cycle. If there were indicators to assess whether we will survive climate change then choice should get the highest weight. Let’s not hand over agency, and devalue our choice, or we will be like the Tesla Bot (a humanoid in development or not?), a new thrill or antic of a bored billionaire. 

Voices for a green future and the children interviewed inspired me to reflect, reimagine, and come up with a wish list, which I have shared below. While using chocolate to run a car may be possible but not yet feasible, and were it to be, conditions to limit over-harvesting of cacao and clearing forest land for cocoa cultivation will surely need to factor in given our track record, we can take inspiration from these children to reimagine a “climate accord.”

Wish list for citizens and planners to consider and improve, in the run up to COP26, the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held from October 31, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland:

  1. Let your cell phone batteries (lithium-ion battery) discharge fully before you recharge, the life of a battery is two to five years or 300 to 500 discharge and recharge cycles, whichever comes first. Read more.
  2. Stop the use of non-natural composites in packaging. Composites include more than one material, a man-made or natural component combined with a synthetic polymer. Packets of chips are an example: They are hard to recycle and their recycling releases harmful chemicals. The more we source locally, the less the need for long-life preservation.
  3. Build roads in conjunction with well planned public transport using electric-vehicles or 100% ethanol-fuelled vehicles. This will eliminate exhaust fumes and the number of batteries that need to be recycled or mined for, and urban roads will become joyful to walk or bike on. 
  4. Ask and plan for better infrastructure in rural areas. Give villages access to all necessities at local facilities. Roads that enable villagers to travel to cities or towns are options only for those that have a personal vehicle or the money to hire one during an emergency. To enable someone is to respect their reality and help enhance it.
  5. Rethink and rebuild our education system: It cannot be that villages or rural settings in India or elsewhere lack youth who can be trained to become educators, engineers, healthcare professionals and more. To underestimate their intelligence, prepare them for a biased college and university setup, and not provide adequate training and support to harness skills is a systemic shortcoming. Skill development needs to look at local problems that rural youth can solve using their training, and not at how they can contribute to the required industrial workforce.
  6. Develop highways that carry not trucks or cars but have integrated electric or ethanol-fuelled tram systems to carry produce and people, encouraging relationships through shared journeys, and cultural exchange through food and small scale goods. I like the idea of a zip line suggested by a child to the COP26 President. Maybe this is technology that we need to invest in to improve interstate travel.
  7. Redefine renewable sources of energy to include reusable technology. Not so far in the future, photovoltaic cells used in solar panels will add to the growing toxic trash that lithium-ion batteries are contributing to. We need more investment in reusable and circular design and technology, with cleaner ways to disintegrate and decompose.